My parents, they don’t fight much. Thirty years of living together have gotten them quite tired of each other. Agreements are reached all too quickly since, well, there aren’t many options to begin with, not for us. They’ve never argued over what to do with the thirty crowns left over for the month, because the answer is always to not spend it.
Instead they just complained. Boy did they complain. Like ducks at a pond getting beaten repeatedly by the same annoying boy with a stick, they make mutual cacophony that play off each other’s displeasure. Kastor, you’re overweight. Kastor, do the dishes properly they’re still dirty. Kastor, go find more work and feed yourself instead of living off us at twenty-two.
Such an environment elicits an intolerance of actual arguments that involve emotion and debate. Like what’s happening now.
Arkai and Kathanhiel are shouting at each other.
I sit so still they could build a snowman out of me, and it’ll last the entire winter because there’s barely any air coming out of my nose.
To whom should I entrust the task of freeing me from this self-inflicted paralysis?
‘Oon’Shang says there’s...’ she suddenly speaks up, cupping a hand to her ear, ‘...people, a huge group of people, camping on the highway. We have to slow down.’
Arkai immediately seizes the opportunity to be somewhere else, and dashes to the front of the carriage without another word.
Five seconds of silence.
With a shaky sigh Kathanhiel rubs her face with both hands. ‘What am I doing – why did I –’ without acknowledging either of us she goes after him.
Haylis and I look at each other like children who just made it out of a dark forest.
‘Nice,’ I say to her.
‘Don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I thought I was going to suffocate.’
‘You look like a beetroot.’
She grows on you, this girl. Glad I decided to like her.
‘What do you think we should do? Keep going in the coach and have the dragons chase us, or go on a boat and take it slow?’
‘What a stupid question. Didn’t I make it clear I’m sticking with Aunt Kath? I wasn’t going on your stupid ferry in the first place.’
Annnd not so glad.
‘Don’t say anything if you’ve got nothing good to say.’
‘Just tell her you don’t want to leave. She won’t make you.’
That’s not true though. Unlike Haylis, my name, initials, and blurry thumbprint are all on a contract that says I have to do whatever she says.
Not that I’m on willing. Am I?
As we talk the carriage slows to a crawl. The rooms are echoing with the fleshy banging of panicky hands slapping against steel. Muffled shouting seeps through the walls, louder than rain.
Arkai and Kathanhiel return, and lo and behold, they’re arguing again.
‘It’s not safe, the crowd is too agitated,’ Arkai says.
‘It is my duty to see to them. Haylis, fetch my ceremonial set. Kastor, get into your gear and announce me to the people – no more objections Arkai, I shan’t cover like some criminal.’
‘The cultists are here for certain. They’ll take advantage of the mob –’
Kathanhiel silently points to the next room, her face set in stone. With an undisguised growl Arkai storms away, and for the first time ever I hear the clap of his boots on the floor.
‘You too Kastor, don your armour.’
I grab my bags and scamper as the carriage rocks from left to right, riding on high tide.
One peak through the window shows that Arkai is being quite reasonable. Thousands of people have gathered around the coach, a sea of grey and destitute faces shrouded by the downpour and the feeble sun. Their mouths are all moving wildly, shouting things that are yet indistinct, but the moment we open that door –
‘Refugees from the north,’ Arkai replies as he wraps a black scarf around his head, ‘or at least what appears to be.’ A swish of his cloak reveals two dozen throwing knives slotted into various pockets. ‘Keep your eyes on the crowd. I’ll have the doorway clear but if anyone suspicious get close do not hesitate, and don’t get in her way if ill events should arise.’
With that he vaults to the ceiling and flings open a hatch that I didn’t even know was there, then slips out silent as a cat.
Get moving, stupid. Stop staring and put on those greaves.
Leather cuirass, check. Studded gauntlets, check. The stupidly broad shoulder pads, check…no, should’ve put on the gauntlets last – tying knots in these is a nightmare. Fine, gauntlets off, shoulders on, then the greaves – nope, bending over in these shoulders is impossible. Should’ve put on the greaves before the shoulders.
Yes, these are the gear given to me at the winter palace. No, I’ve not kept them on while inside the coach. Yes, it’s not the first time I’ve attempted to put them on, and no, it’s not difficult at all – in fact, compared to the prospect of being a herald in front of an angry mob this is nothing.
What were the words again? Should’ve written them down – no, that’s shameful, what kind of esquire carries around a script?
All rise for – wait no they’re already standing – Behold – should it start with behold? What if they don’t want to behold? No that’s stupid, everyone sensible has heard of Kathanhiel and they’ll behold her for sure.
Behold, Lady Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, slayer of Elisaad!
Seems a bit short doesn’t it? Maybe I should use pay heed instead. Pay heed to the presence of – no no that sounds moronic how does one pay heed to a presence? Pay heed to the words of the Lady – wait, is she going to speak? If I say that then find out she hasn’t planned on speaking I’ll be putting her on the spot – no no no, this won’t work…
There’s no time to mull over every word, even if I had words to mull. The moment Haylis calls out to me I fling open the door like a gladiator charging into the arena, ready for a fight to the death.
Not the outside door; the door to Kathanhiel’s room. Hold your horses.
My breath catches.
Kathanhiel’s ceremonial cuirass is made out of tiny diamonds, each a crystallised star shining with its own light. Angular arcs flourish from the ends of her glowing gauntlets like icy claws, and the white-woven lining on her thighs – atop winged greaves – is a constant shimmer of trapped rainbows. She wears no helmet, only a white circlet adorn with a rose-tinted diamond the size of a thumb.
She turns in my direction, and it’s immediately apparent that she’s naked underneath. Those paintings that attempt to capture the forms of heroes of legend, they’re but doodles without imagination. The light emanating from her body, fiery yet ethereal, white yet full of warmth, cannot possibly be put into drab paint, because no palette is worthy of it. She is beyond beautiful, that bland word people use to describe flowers and the sunset.
Kaishen hangs unsheathed at her side, and its blade ember-red.
‘Haylis, the heraldry. Give it to him.’
A metal stick with a piece of cloth hanging on one materialises in my hand. I shove it to one side because it’s blocking the view. A hand reaches in and not-so-gently pushes shut the bottom of my jaw. Haylis is giggling.
‘Quit it idiot.’
Was…was my mouth open, all this time?
‘I-I-I’m…you look amazing.’
The mighty slap on my back almost pushes me over. Haylis, vigilant as ever, is trying to rein in my head from the clouds.
Normally Kathanhiel would smile at my slightly (well, not so slightly) perverted expression, but this time, in that brilliant star-made armour, her face is one of intense concentration.
‘Kastor, as my esquire it is your duty to herald my arrival to the people. If you’re not ready for it Haylis can take your place.’
There comes a moment in a man-child’s life when he has to leap outside his zone of comfort, not by a step but by a whole bloody mile – an impossible task under normal circumstances, but when his chest is so filled with pride for the one he loves, anything, absolutely anything, can seem like a walk in the park.
‘Haylis, please get the door.’
One moment the sound of the crowd is that of a distant thunder, rumbling far away; the next, it’s the coming of the high tide upon a rickety pier.
Frenzied faces, crying faces, faces desperately clinging to the last bit of sanity – they swarm forward in a wave of writhing flesh. The heat of thousands of bodies pressed together, the stink of sweat, thick with mud and rain, churns all coherent thoughts to pieces.
There’s no distinguishing one person from the next. They’re all grey, all drenched to the skin and shouting at the top of their lungs. ‘Get off!’ ‘Give us the coach!’ ‘My son, he is dying, please spare him!’ ‘Don’t leave us!’ ‘Not that way!’ ‘Take us south, please!’ ‘The carriage, the carriage is safe!’ ‘Help us!’
The little giants have positioned themselves on either side of the door, and in between them stands Arkai with two daggers in hand. Not two steps separate them from the mob, who are only keeping their distance because the little giants are each brandishing a javelin.
The crowd surges as soon as they see me come out. One catches himself on the handle of Oon’Shang’s javelin, and the gentle shove sends him flying. Two others grab her legs like ants trying to fell a tree, but she simply picks them up by their tattered collars and tosses them as one would sprinkle seeds into a field.
‘Keep away! Mind yourselves!’ Arkai yells into the sea of voices. A man grabs him by the arm, trying to shove him aside. A flash of steel. Screams. An index finger falls to the ground red-topped. ‘I warned you! Keep away!’
‘Get him! Grab him!’
The mob piles onto Arkai, shouting and jostling, but the man is a shadow. Two hands slap onto his shoulders only to slip off as if they’ve grabbed a flopping fish. Someone charges at him, head lowered like a bull, but a swish of cloak later Arkai’s knee meets his face. Blood flies, but cries of pain is only riling up the rest.
‘Stop! Stop it!’
I can’t even hear my own voice. Someone has to fix this craziness and it’s not going to be me; no one’s looking at the flag in my hand – the heraldry might as well be a colourful rag. Those eyes – bloodshot and angry, so many and so mad – they don’t belong to human beings, but a pack of wolves barely held in check by sanity’s cage.
Then the little giants intervene. As one they stomp the ground with their left foot.
A shockwave ripples outward, etching cracks onto the highway and stumbling everyone on the spot. Creaking, the carriage begins to tilt sideways, but Oon’Shang holds out a massive hand and keeps it still. Is it my imagination, or did she just nod at me?
There is a brief lull as people are distracted.
Now or never.
With one decisive jab I try to plant the heraldry into the ground only to realise that metal sticks can only be planted in dirt and not pavement. Cover it up, stupid. Pretend you were just stomping it to make emphasis!
I open my mouth.
Please, let words come out.